The Center Square

Tennessee Principal Sues Shelby County Schools for Violating First Amendment Rights

February 26, 2021

(The Center Square)—A Memphis-area high school principal has filed suit against Shelby County Schools for violating his First Amendment rights after he was suspended for telling students social media and technology companies pose a threat to free speech.

Cordova High School Principal Barton Thorne was placed on administrative leave by the district in January after expressing concern to students over the way unregulated tech and social media companies have the power to control conversations and shut down discussions online.

Thorne is now bringing a lawsuit against the district for violating his First Amendment rights and rights under his contract.

“I’m taking action because I meant what I said: Free speech is critically important and is under threat,” Thorne said in a statement. “I will not allow myself to be silenced any more than I would allow a student to be marginalized for sharing a perfectly reasonable point of view.”

Shelby County Schools has conducted classes virtually throughout this school year, and Thorne had shared a video message with Cordova High School students each week.

On Jan. 11 – less than a week after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington – Thorne addressed the immense influence of tech companies on information and discourse online.

“In democracies, we talk about the marketplace of ideas,” Thorne said in the video. “What happens when you do not have dissenting opinions, when you do not have an exchange on competing ideas – how do you know if your ideas can stand on their own if there is no marketplace of ideas?”

Thorne pointed out to students that companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have “unilaterally” chosen what users can and cannot see on their platforms, and he encouraged students to talk about the issue with their parents and teachers.

“You may be in agreement with the people who are doing the filtering, but it’s just one moment away from somebody else being able to filter you,” Thorne said. “And so, if they can do that to a minority – or if they can do that to a powerful voice, it doesn’t have to be a minority – what will stop them one day from doing that to you?”

Shelby County Schools placed Thorne on paid administrative leave the day after his video was circulated.

According to the Liberty Justice Center, which represents Thorne in the lawsuit, district officials instructed Thorne not to speak to the media or the community about his suspension, but numerous district officials have spoken publicly about him. The video was shared immediately with news media.

“Principal Thorne was suspended from his job for preaching the virtues of free speech and tolerance,” a Liberty Justice Center attorney said. “He warned students that these days, anyone’s voice can be canceled for any reason at any time by a small group of people – and school administrators have proved him right.”